From education to employment

#ALevelResultsDay – Labour announces radical shake up of higher education admissions system

Ahead of A-Level results day tomorrow, Labour has today (Wednesday 14 August) announced plans to radically reform higher education admissions by scrapping university offers based on predicted grades and implementing a new fairer system of post-qualification admissions (“PQA”).

Under Labour’s plans, students will apply for their university or higher education place after receiving their results in A-Levels or other qualifications, instead of relying on an unreliable system of predicted grades that unfairly penalises disadvantaged students and those from minority backgrounds. 

Almost two in five students (38%) received at least one conditional offer this year, compared to a third (34%) last year and just 1% six years ago. Yet only one in six (16%) students’ A-level grades are predicted correctly.

No other countries use predicted grades to award university places, and 70% staff involved in university admissions back the move to a PQA system.

Angela Rayner MP, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Education, said:

“The higher education admissions system isn’t working for students, and radical action is needed to change that.

“Predicted grades are wrong in the vast majority of cases, and disadvantaged students in particular are losing out on opportunities on the basis of those inaccurate predictions. No one should be left out of our education system just because of their background, yet with grants scrapped and fees tripled, the system is now deeply unfair.   

“A Labour government will deliver the reform that is needed, implementing a new system of post-qualification admissions by the end of our first term in office. We will put students at the heart of the system, making it fairer, more accurate, and a genuine vehicle for social justice.

“We will work with schools, colleges, and universities to design and implement the new system, and continue to develop our plans to make higher education genuinely accessible to all.”

According to analysis carried out by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills in 2011, black students were the most likely to have their grades under-predicted.

Warning that poorer students are more likely to have their grades under-predicted than their wealthier peers, making them less likely to apply to the most selective institutions, The Sutton Trust, a social mobility charity, has also called for the introduction of PQA.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Trust, said:

“The Sutton Trust is recommending we move to a post-qualifications admission system […] having actual grades on application empowers the student. They can pick the right course at the right university with a high degree of certainty that they are making the right choice.”

The party’s plans will also curb the sharp rise in unconditional offers and bring an end to the clearing process – which can be an incredibly stressful and worrying time for students. With students no longer applying to universities on the basis of their predicted grades, they will be able to make better, more accurate decisions and avoid the pressure to accept an unconditional offer.

PQA is the norm across the world, and England’s reliance on predicted grades is an international outlier; England is the only country with over a million students where a pre-qualifications admissions system is used.

The University and College Union (UCU), which has long campaigned for reform of university admissions, welcomed the move and said it was time the UK caught up with the rest of the world by basing offers on actual achievement rather than guesswork.

The union said that shifting to a post-qualifications admissions (PQA) system – where people apply to university after they get their results – would deal with the problem of inaccurate grade predications, put an end to the chaotic clearing system and level the playing field for students.

UCU said the change would also make unconditional offers and “conditional unconditional offers” – where a student is only guaranteed a place if they list the university as their first choice – redundant.

Jo Grady, General Secretary of the University and College Union, said:

“We have long called for an overhaul of university admissions and welcome Labour’s commitment to reform the system.

“Allowing people to apply after they receive their results would help level the playing field for students, remove the problems associated with unconditional offers and end the chaotic clearing scramble.

“The current system, based on inaccurately predicted results, is failing students and it is time we adopted the type of system used around the rest of the world where university offers are based on actual achievements instead of guesswork.”

David Hughes, Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges, said:

“The Labour Party has recognised weaknesses in the current admissions system which must be addressed and which have concerned colleges, including the increased use of unconditional offers. With only 16% of applicants achieving their predicted A-Level grades, it is clear that pre-results applications are problematic. We are keen to explore other approaches and with more than half of university students coming from colleges it is vital that colleges are part of the ongoing discussions about how to make the system work better.

“We are pleased to see the Labour Party recognising that post-qualification applications would require a complete overhaul of the system rather than more modest reform. For PQA to be a success, as it is in all other high-performing countries, radical changes would be required. In any proposed changes, we must ensure that students’ needs are at the forefront of any consultation. We hope schools and colleges, the awarding bodies and universities will engage in open debate about how the new system could work to create space for a successful PQA system.”

Dr Graeme Atherton, Director of National Education Opportunities Network (NEON), said:

“The admissions system was designed at a time when a small minority of students, mostly from privileged backgrounds, entered higher education.

“As far more students progress and we wish to widen access further it is essential that we move to a 21st century system based on post-qualifications admissions that puts students first.

“A system based on post-qualification admissions that supports equal choice for all students is essential if we are to reduce the major inequalities in access, success, and progression in higher education in England.”

Clare Marchant, UCAS’ Chief Executive said:

“It’s essential that admissions to higher education remain fair, accurate, and a vehicle for social justice. While a post-results admissions service has a natural appeal, the UK-wide consultation UCAS ran in 2012 showed that, if introduced wholesale within the current timetables, it would be likely to significantly disadvantage underrepresented and disabled students, unless secondary and/or university calendars changed.

“Young people need their teachers’ support when making application choices, and this isn’t readily available to all at the scale required when schools and colleges are closed during August. Once students have a place, they need time to find accommodation, finalise their financial support, and to prepare for their studies. Universities and colleges need time for interviews, auditions, and considering contextual information about applicants, and time to put in place support services to help care leavers, first in family, and disabled students, transition into higher education.

“Developing a post-qualifications admissions (PQA) service that works for everyone would require the clear support of students, teachers, qualification awarding bodies, the Student Loans Company, and universities and colleges, as well as a solution to timescale challenges.

“Under the current system, around 78% of applicants receive their first choice of university or college, regardless of their background. Clearing provides a PQA s for those students who want to wait until they have their results before applying, and in 2018 more than 17,500 students were accepted directly through this route. 87% of applicants placed in Clearing said they were happy, or extremely happy, with the application process.

“We’re working with students to extend flexibility and choice – for example, this year we have made it easier for them to change their minds and take advantage of new opportunities during the admissions cycle. Our admissions service protects students, enabling them to exercise their consumer rights, supporting fair admissions for all to UK higher education.

“It’s important to remember that predicted grades are just one part of a student’s application. Universities take a holistic view of applicants’ achievements and potential when deciding whether to make an offer. Personal statements, references, interviews, and auditions can be as important when assessing if an individual will flourish on a course.

“Disadvantaged students are more likely to be over-predicted, which can encourage them to make aspirational choices, with universities making realistic offers, and taking near miss candidates when confirming places.

“Last year, student satisfaction with UCAS and the services we provide increased to 92%.”

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said:

“It is a good idea to look at moving to a system of post-qualification admissions for university, but it would represent a significant and complex change to our current admissions systems.

“It would be extremely difficult to manage the entire applications process in the few weeks between A-level results in mid-August and the beginning of university terms in September or October, and it is likely that we would need to rethink the entire calendar.

“It might be simpler to return to a system in which AS levels counted towards the first year of the full A-level as this allowed universities to use actual results in considering applications, and for universities to stop the practice of so-called ‘conditional unconditional’ offers – which are unconditional as long as the student makes the university their first choice – simply to put bums on seats.”

A DfE spokesperson said:

“Last year there were a record rates of 18 year olds from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university, which is up more than 50 per cent from ten years ago.

“Universities must ensure their admissions practices are fair, to ensure everyone can access higher education, or they will face action. The Office for Students and Universities UK are already undertaking a review of university admissions to look at how well current practices serve students and we urge all groups to support them to see how they can be improved.

“We are concerned by the recent large increases in the number of unconditional offers as we know some students who accept unconditional offers can be more likely to miss their predicted A level grades.

“Where institutions are not acting in the best interests of students the Office for Students should use their full range of powers to take action.”

Post Qualifications Admissions – How it works across the world

Research by UCL’s Institute of Education found that nearly one in four disadvantaged students who go on to achieve AAB or better in A-Level have predicted grades lower than their final results.

Analysis from Dr Gill Wyness of UCL’s Institute of Education found that predicted grades were only accurate in 16% of cases, and that under-prediction of grades is a particular issue for disadvantaged students. The research found that nearly one in four (23.7%) disadvantaged students who go on to achieve AAB or better in A-Level have predicted grades lower than their final results. 

Students with under-predicted grades are less likely to apply to the most selective institutions, with their predicted grades acting as a barrier to social mobility. 

Among the 12 systems in the study who have over 1 million students England, Wales & Northern Ireland is the only one which has a pre-qualifications admission system.

Within this clear commitment to deliver PQA, Labour will consult with universities, schools, and colleges on the detail of the implementation, to ensure that the needs of students at every phase of their education is reflected in a radically reformed system.

Nine of the 10 countries in the world with the best performing graduates have PQA. High performing systems are willing to try and overcome system inertia in order to remain high performing with four out of five of the countries with most able graduates presently undertaking/considering HE admissions reform.

There is a growing consensus that our system of higher education admissions is in need of reform. Both UCU and the Sutton Trust, a charity campaigning for improved social mobility, have already called for PQA to be implemented. This call was recently echoed by several university vice-chancellors.

The independent regulator, the Office for Students, and university representative body UniversitiesUK are currently reviewing the admissions system. In particular, the UniversitesUK recently announced a review of higher education admissions, that would include considering the introduction of PQA. The Office for Students, the higher education regulator, is also in the process of reviewing higher education admissions, and will be considering PQA as part of this.

Analysis carried out by the former Department for Business Innovation and Skills in 2011 “Investigating the Accuracy of Predicted A Level Grades as part of 2009 UCAS Admission Process” looked at the accuracy of predicted grades based on the ethnicity of students. This found that black students were the most likely to have their grades under-predicted.  

For many students, the clearing process is an incredibly stressful and worrying time:

“This was one of the most stressful experiences of my life. The Ucas website crashed, all phone lines were jammed and universities did not always give you an instant answer” – First Year Psychology Student | University Of Chichester 

A record number of students, nearly two-fifths (38%) received an unconditional offer this year according to UCAS. The chief executive of UCAS criticised some institutions for using these offers in an effort to put “bottoms on seats.” A quarter of applicants received a “conditional unconditional offer”, compared to a fifth at this point last year.

Previous research by academics at the university of Warwick found that in the current admissions system “there are significantly lower probabilities of receiving an offer to an applicant who (i) is from a non-white ethnic background, or (ii) is from a lower social class background, or (iii) attended either a comprehensive or further education college rather than a grammar or independent school.”

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